Why Family Health History is Important if You or Your Child has Learning or Attention Problems

two girls are looking at a computer

What are learning and attention problems?

Many children have trouble with learning and paying attention every now and then. However, for some, learning or attention differences are significant and do not go away. These children might have difficulty with classwork or homework, they might not follow directions at home or at school, and they might have difficulties with behavior, handling emotions, or relationships. These children might have learning or attention disorders:

  • Learning disorders. There are a number of learning disorders, and they can look different for different children. Learning disorders are caused by brain differences that do not affect overall intelligence but make learning certain tasks harder. Some children might have dyslexia, which makes learning to read more difficult. An early sign of dyslexia is trouble learning the letters in the alphabet.
  • Some children might have dyscalculia, which means problems doing math. Some might have dysgraphia, which means serious trouble with writing. Children can also have a combination or all of these learning problems at once. Learn more about learning disorders.
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There are three types of ADHD: inattentive, impulsive/hyperactive, and combined type. All three types affect a person’s ability to pay attention. Children with inattentive ADHD might daydream a lot or often forget or lose things. Children with impulsive/hyperactive ADHD can be overly active and impulsive and might often squirm or fidget, make careless mistakes, or take unnecessary risks. Some children have both types of ADHD. Learn more about ADHD

Sometimes these children also have speech or language disorders, other developmental disabilities, or mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression.

Because difficulties with learning and attention can get in the way of doing well at school, home, and with friends and can cause long-term problems, getting help and support early is important. Talking to your health care provider is always a good first step if you notice that your child is having problems with learning or attention, whether or not there is family history.

Why is it important to know if your child has a family health history of ADHD or learning disorders?

Difficulties with learning and attention can run in families. Knowing about this family health history can help your child’s health care provider make a diagnosis if your child is having difficulty with learning or attention. Having a family member, especially another child, with a learning or attention problem can help you identify concerns early in your child. Finding learning and attention disorders early can help your child get services sooner, which can help your child succeed.

Finding out more about family health history can help some parents discover for the first time that they also have a learning disorder or ADHD that has not been diagnosed or treated. However, having family members with learning or attention disorders does not automatically mean that your child will have a problem with learning or attention.

How do you collect a family health history of learning and attention problems?

Collect your child’s family health history information before seeing your child’s health care provider:

When you talk with your provider, also include information on sleep, hearing, or vision issues, which can cause learning or attention difficulties that look like learning disorders or ADHD.

Sharing your child’s diagnosis of learning disorders or ADHD with your other family members might help their children get diagnosed if they have similar problems.

What might the doctor recommend for your child?

The health care provider may check your child more closely for early signs of ADHD or a learning disorder. The earlier these conditions are diagnosed, the better the outcome in the long term. In some cases, the health care provider might refer your child to a child development specialist for further evaluation. There are currently no genetic or blood tests available for learning disorders or ADHD. However, the health care provider might suggest genetic counseling and testing if your child has a family history of certain conditions that can cause learning and attention problems, including autism spectrum disorder or fragile X syndrome.

Obtaining a diagnosis of an attention or learning disorder allows you and your child to better understand your child’s difficulties and find ways for your child to succeed. A diagnosis of ADHD or a learning disorder is also important for tailoring children’s education to best accommodate their needs. While ADHD and learning disorders can cause challenges for children, children with these conditions have many strengths and, with the right support, can thrive both at school and at home.

Even without a specific diagnosis there are steps you and your child’s school can take to help your child: